Microsoft cloud key to results in Iowa caucuses

CHICAGO — Iowa and Microsoft will have a lot at stake Monday as Republican and Democratic volunteers in roughly 1,700 precincts start plugging vote totals into their smartphones to deliver the first verdict of the 2016 presidential campaign.

It will be the first time mobile apps have been used in tabulating the results of the Iowa caucuses. While it may not offer much solace to those organizing the count, it could hardly go worse than it did four years ago.

The Republican results in 2012 became mired in confusion and created an Iowa embarrassment after an especially close race between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Romney was initially named the winner. Then, more than two weeks later and after a final accounting of most of the paperwork, Santorum was declared the victor by a 34-vote margin out of more than 120,000 cast. Numbers from eight precincts were never found or certified.

With polls showing the race close in Iowa between billionaire Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, there may not be much room for error on Monday, either. Any major hiccup could further threaten Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, something always coveted by other states that want an earlier shot.

“I would like to think that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Matt Strawn, who was the state Republican Party chairman on the fateful night in 2012.

Santorum, who is running again this year, often points to his initial slight in the count and how it hurt his potential momentum.

Unlike primaries that follow in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Iowa’s caucuses are run by the state parties and not government, such as a secretary of state’s office.

In the past, an automated telephone system was used to file results from each precinct. The system was prone to error because there was less cross-checking to determine if someone accidentally hit a wrong touchtone.

“I do think it makes a difference that they have someone, in Microsoft, that has really put themselves out there,” Strawn said when asked if he thinks the events of 2012 could repeat themselves. “They have as much skin in the game as anyone.”

Democratic and Republican party officials have said the new online technology, which Microsoft is providing free of charge, will deliver timely and accurate results.

“We have trained, trained, trained and tested, tested, tested with Microsoft to ensure that our caucus reporters will be able to quickly, accurately and securely transmit precinct reports on caucus night,” said Charlie Szold, the state Republican Party’s communications director.

There have been more than 300 training sessions statewide on caucus procedures and results reporting, Szold said, as well as statewide testing of data signals and the new technology.

In cases where volunteers don’t have smartphones or data coverage is weak, there will also be an option to submit results from landlines and a touchtone system.

As another backup, the state parties have also put in place a plan to get all the paperwork from the precincts to Des Moines within 48 hours of the caucuses, should a speedy auditing be needed in the case of another exceptionally close race.

Votes at each precinct will be counted the way they always have been. It’s just the transmission of totals from each location that will be different.

That transmission will be done via a mobile-enabled, cloud-based platform. The new reporting system will feature separate applications for each party’s unique caucus process that will enable volunteers to securely submit results directly to their headquarters in Des Moines. The information will be stored and managed in Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform.

In addition to mobile reporting applications, each party will have a separate results verification app that will allow headquarters staff to monitor incoming results. Anomalies and potential problem areas will be automatically highlighted, and party officials say they’ll be able to quickly connect with precinct chairs if issues arise.

The general public will also be able to follow caucus night results on a new website where they’ll be able to interact with a map to discover results and information for each precinct in all 99 counties.

Microsoft didn’t address a question asked about the potential risks and rewards of having the company’s name on such a public data-collection effort.

“The Iowa caucuses provided a unique nonpartisan opportunity to use technology to help evolve the reporting process,” the company said. “Microsoft is providing technology and services solely to administer and facilitate a neutral, accurate, efficient reporting system for the caucuses.”

In a fact sheet, the company said the apps will have “a number of security checks and verifications to ensure that only authorized Iowans are inputting caucus results” and that “all data collected through the app is owned by the respective party and data from the two parties will never be comingled or shared externally.”

Back in 2012, Romney and Santorum traded leads throughout much of the night of the caucuses. After midnight, Santorum took a 24-vote lead, before Romney moved ahead by eight votes when some additional late-reporting precincts reported their totals.

With those totals in hand, Strawn said representatives from the Romney and Santorum campaigns gathered in a “war room” run by the party in Des Moines and shook hands over what they thought was a full tabulation. Strawn then went in front of reporters and declared Romney the winner, a categorization that in retrospect he wishes he’d avoided.

It wasn’t how Strawn, who resigned as state party chairman a few weeks later, had expected the evening would play out.

“The numbers usually speak for themselves,” he said. “I figured I would do some media, have a cocktail, and everyone would go off to New Hampshire.”

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